One of the topics for discussion on this morning’s Sunday Morning Live is about striking workers. The host, Susannah Reid asks “Are strikes justified or are they the tactics of bullyboy unions”? Cue footage of Thatcher, the ‘Winter of Discontent’ and the Miner’s Strike. The overall tone of the pre-discussion film is anti-union. Some woman called Angela Epstein, whom I have never seen before declares that all strikes should be made illegal. But it’s 2 against 1 as Jonathan Bartley and Hardeep Singh Kohli lay into her ill-thought out opinions. But that isn’t the end of it. Cue the talking heads from around the country linked by webcam to the studio. It’s all about the “cost to British business”. Never mind working conditions. They just shouldn’t do it. Angela asks “do really want to return to the militancy of the 1970’s”? To be honest she doesn’t look old enough to remember the 1970’s. If she was old enough to remember she may recall how utterly rubbish British management was though I suspect that she’d have been on the side of the Tories. Their view was that Britain’s gin-soaked managers were doing a bang up job.
Earlier on The Andrew Marr Show, Julia Hobsbawm and Clive Anderson were reviewing the papers. Anderson lighted on an article by Andrew Gilligan that is titled “The Return of the Strike”. I don’t know where Kennite has been living for the last 20 years but the strike never went away. Britain’s unions have become weaker thanks to the restrictive legislation passed by Thatcher and all the governments since. But strikes still happen.
Over the last few months, there has been much union and media talk of a “new winter of discontent” to be allegedly provoked by the savage public spending cuts ahead. And indeed, last week, as the clocks went back, the workers went out – not just at the Beeb, over pensions, but on the London Underground, where Wednesday saw the third 24-hour strike about ticket office closures, and in the London Fire Brigade, over shift patterns, with the second of two eight-hour strikes on Tuesday and a 47-hour walkout due to begin on Friday.
I don’t recall any union leader talking about a “New Winter of Discontent”. Yet here Kennite claims that some union leader, somewhere, has said it. In fact, his own paper warned in August that Scotland was facing a winter of discontent. Indeed much of this talk has come directly from the Tory press and Tory commentators. So maybe he’s half right. But Kennite is a little late with his analysis. The BBC’s Nick Robinson produced this article in September. He says,
The unions are weaker, the laws limiting their actions much stronger and the desire for that style of confrontation is simply not there.
There is no mention of this rather important fact in Kennite’s article. Instead he concentrates his attention on how the unions present themselves in the media,
And there are also doubts about the union movement’s ability to fight in the media age. Sophisticated trade unionists, like the TUC’s Brendan Barber, know that Seventies-style chest-beating will not work. It is notable that in his first speech as Labour leader, Mr Miliband went out of his way to condemn “irresponsible strikes.”
People like Barber know that a new unionism, modelled on the most effective NGOs, such as Greenpeace, is needed: addressing the public, rather than just the employer; based on campaigning, and on uncovering information that changes minds, rather than just the diminishing asset of workforce muscle.
It never occurs to Gilligan how the Tory-dominated press operates with regards to workers, unions and strikes. His paper and others like it print smear story after smear story about unions and striking workers. These days mainstream politicians will do any thing to please the media barons. You may recall how Tony Blair schmoozed The Old Bastard before Labour’s election victory in 1997. The Murdoch media empire was more than happy to swing behind Blair and his new Tories. It was as if the real constituents; the ordinary voters didn’t matter. What mattered was appeasing the Tory press. Miniband is merely trying to keep onside with the hostile media because he knows that if he doesn’t the press will make mincemeat of him and his party.
What programmes like Sunday Morning Live succeed in doing is regurgitating old myths and canards. They attract armchair activists whose understanding of the world comes to them from the Tory press.
Why do we fight? Because we have to!